The latest Psychological guide to Sexually Open Relationships
A classic psychology study explored men’s greater appetite for sex without ties; an attractive male or female approached strangers of the other sex on a college campus, declaring, “I have been noticing you around campus. I ﬁnd you very attractive.” The collaborators with the experiment then asked one of three questions, randomly selected before approaching the subject: (a) Would you go out with me tonight? (b) Would you come over to my apartment tonight? (c) Would you go to bed with me tonight?
To the first question, both males and females assented 50% of the time. To the second, 69% of males and 6% of females responded affirmatively. To the third question, 75% of males, and 0% of females said yes, and the men who declined often apologized and cited a conﬂict due to previous plans.
Another study found males wanting an average of 18 sex partners in their lifetime, compared to women, who reported desiring 4 to 5 partners.
Kevin Zimmerman from Iowa State University, cites these studies in an intriguing academic guide to sexually open relationships, which has recently been published.
He marshals a host of scientific research which questions whether everyone was really meant to be monogamous, and whether a great deal of couples’ unhappiness arises out of pre-supposing monogamy is the only option.
Zimmerman raises the question of whether we could be socialized to believe that to be devoted to a second person is to love the ﬁrst less, even though this standard does not apply when discussing adoring more than one child, for example.
Zimmerman explains that open relationships are different from inﬁdelity or cheating because partners agree on the sexual boundaries of the relationship, and there is no deception about sex. Successful open relationships typically involve those who privilege authenticity over conformity in their relationships. ‘Open’ relationships can be characterised by more honesty and better observation of boundaries.
Zimmerman’s paper is published in the ‘Journal of Feminist Family Therapy’ – ‘open’ relationships are sometimes seen as raising the status of women, releasing them to be with whom they want, bestowing greater power over their own bodies. Some heterosexual feminist women prefer ‘open’ relationships, he points out, to avoid appearing dependent on men, or out of contempt for being ‘submerged’ into a couple.
Surveys indicate that 79% of Americans believe that it’s always wrong for the married to conduct sexual relationships outside of marriage, yet the most up to date research Zimmerman quotes indicates estimates of inﬁdelity are closer to 60% for men and 40% for women.
Monogamy is also the exception to relationships throughout the animal kingdom. Zimmerman cites work contending that of 4,000 mammal species, only about 3%, have been found to be monogamous, plus of the world’s roughly 400 species of primates, monogamy has been reported for only nine.
Zimmerman argues even the shape of the male penis, together with male thrusting, apparently facilitates removal of other males’ semen from the vagina, according to previous research. In monogamous species, males and females are similar in body size and the males sport smaller testicles compared to non-monogamous males – testicle and body size of men in homo sapiens is what would be expected for a polygamous species. Our body shape reveals we are not biologically designed to be faithful.
Zimmerman’s paper entitled, ‘Clients in Sexually Open Relationships: Considerations for Therapists’, explains that optimal evolutionary strategy is to appear monogamous while being polygamous covertly. It might be in the best interest of both men and women to present (or misrepresent) themselves to potential mates as loyal. A particular advantage might accrue to females who present (misrepresent) themselves as having a low sex drive, linked to uncertainty of paternity.
Of the 185 human societies investigated in one study, only 29 restricted their members to monogamy, in addition, 154 of the 185 societies allowed men to have multiple partners if they could afford them.
Zimmerman explains that ‘Partnered non-monogamy’ refers to a committed couple that allows for sex outside the central relationship. Swinging is non-monogamy in a social context, also referred to as “the lifestyle”, ‘Polyamory’ allows for partners to have more than one relationship that is sexual, loving, and emotional. ‘Polyﬁdelity’ refers to three or more people who have made a commitment to be in a primary relationship together. A monogamous/non-monogamous partnership is one in which one person is monogamous and the other is not.
Bisexual women appear numerous in polyamorous communities; the standing joke being that they can “have their Jake and Edith too”. According to Zimmerman, research confirms homosexual couples are much more likely to allow extra-dyadic sex. Two thirds of male couples of all durations are in sexually open relationships. All 156 homosexual couples in one sample who had been together for over 5 years, described their relationships as being open, indicating that having an open relationship may be related to couple longevity. Zimmerman also cites surveys which confirm that heterosexual couples in open relationships can be happy, intimate, and well-adjusted.
In a society in which monogamy is the only acceptable way to be in a committed relationship, Zimmerman contends individuals who experience attraction for anyone else besides their primary partner, often experience guilt shame, and deceit. Being too invested in the idea of monogamy and marriage paradoxically makes it more likely that many ﬁnd the only way to accommodate our non-monogamous biology, is to cheat.
Many choose to carry on a secret sex life rather than openly discuss and resolve conflicts with their partners, because of the social taboos that exist about extra-relational sex and sex generally.
These arguments and evidence suggest the stigma over open relationships could be changing, and in the future, this lifestyle might even become the norm. Zimmerman compares co-habitation before or instead of marriage, around which there was a similar strong taboo just a generation ago.
Zimmerman’s paper contends that couples therapists might need to confront their implicit ‘hetero-centrism’ – that heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships are the norm against which all other sexualities and sexual relationships should be judged.
One of the co-authors of this article (HH-N) experiences of working in sexual therapy has been that the “I” generation (those born in 1980-99) seem less empathic towards partners’ feelings and values and seem less committed to life-long relationships. Many from all generations live in “intimate” relationships that do not fulfil sexual needs. Partners may be chosen because they are supportive or would make good parents, but these qualities do not necessary match with being a great lover.
Given the new opportunities provided by the internet, it is inevitable, sex outside marriages is therefore probably increasing.
Yet whether this is indeed a good thing, or not, remains open to question.